The Nation We Make Together (Part I)

It has taken me two years to write this post. It is the reason this blog was created, but it wasn’t until recently that I found the words and the courage to write it, unapologetically. We’ve had a lot to contemplate, here at the blog, and we’re excited to finally share the conversations we’ve been having to hopefully, as always, inspire thoughtful consideration and critique of the field. In a two-part post (because we know how much you love those), Amanda and I explore what it means or what it could look like when we bring our vulnerabilities into “the institution.”

For me, it all begins with American history, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to be exact. It is what made it so difficult to finally find the words. NMAH was the first museum to welcome me here in D.C. as an intern, to embrace me, and I learned so much in my time there. So this piece is written from place of love, gratitude and appreciation to the many who continue to guide me, and does not take aim to destroy but in hopes to rebuild, together.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” —James Baldwin

 

I am writing this after another verdict, during our country’s Independence Day celebrations, amidst our current political landscape. I am writing because until we come to terms with the psychological and emotional impacts of institutionalized racism on all of us, none of us are free.

Building Houses on National Memory

On a recent trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I noticed their advertising for the now newly opened exhibition, “The Nation We Build Together.” I have not seen the exhibition since it’s opening June 28th, however I was struck by a few things during this last visit, that culminated in a number of anxieties exemplary of how whiteness constitutes national memory, and undergirds our institutions. On a banner above the south entrance, a collage of faces can be seen—across various ages, races, and eras. It is an obvious attempt at American patriotism, one that says despite our differences we’re all in this together. Among those faces was Emmett Till’s, a story that even in typing his name, it evokes imagery of his face that brings me to tears. See, the problem with national memory—that is fueled by nationalism in its very origins—is that not all of us can exist in it, not in our full humanity at least. Not everyone’s story will make it, in favor of a primary singular narrative.

I moved to Washington, D.C. to attend grad school, sure that my work would best be served in a museum-setting but as many young professionals not exactly sure how and in what ways. I was fortunate that a course my first semester granted me access to NMAH, as it was taught by a curator and held in the Museum once a week. It was my first real exposure to a museum on a national scale. One particular assignment from that course always stayed with me—we were tasked with observing an exhibit: What was the context for the exhibit? Who stopped at the exhibit? How were they discussing the exhibit? I chose the exhibit located on the main lobby floor of NMAH. I had never had the “National Museum” experience being from Chicago, and was fascinated to learn what the experience was like for audiences. It’s a small exhibit along the wall, that pays homage to 1960’s America through popular culture. I observed quickly, in a span of a few hours, that this case was overwhelmingly frequented by older white visitors and in a twist, white families. It was a moment of nostalgia for them to remember JFK, the Beatles, and a few major headlines. It was a moment that caused me to look around, and for the first time ask “where are we?,” as visitors and within the narrative.

The following spring, I interned at NMAH with a curator, who I continue to be grateful to today. She was sure to point my attention to the work that she did to secure certain stories existed within the Museum. It was also during this period that the blog was born.

 

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston

 

Decolonize This Place

For people of color, it is at this intersection of feeling and reality, that we repeatedly learn that we are in an overwhelmingly white space. It is at these moments that we come to understand our existence through the prism of whiteness. In a book I am reading,—which I’m sure my Instagram followers are tired of seeing me post—The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Quashie, I am challenged to consider the capaciousness of black humanity that exists beyond equating black life with resistance. For Quashie, and I agree, “These assumptions are noticeable in the ways that blackness serves as an emblem of social ailment and progress.” (Quashie, p. 3) Although, Quashie specifically examines black being, I think aspects of his argument do apply to the collapsable nature of marginalized cultures, accessible only in the ways that they fold into and/or propel white narratives forward.

In NMAH, blackness is legible as a resource and marker of market capitalism that upholds progress in American life and history; a phantom of entrepreneurship and innovation.  In this way, we are left to understand blackness as a problem in either instance. Objects centralize the story, so things are made but we are never truly revealed as to by whom and how these things came to be; without these intersections objects are born out of a function not from people, not from labor, and are condensed into a singular narrative. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has a presence in the museum, an exhibition space there as a preview for its coming arrival in 2016, that now stands in for the existence of black life and resiliency secluded from American history despite its clear proximity.

The basis of Quashie’s argument is that blackness or “to be black” is defined through acts of resistance, as a result black subjectivity is restricted to the ways it contributes to public discourse through its expressions. Blackness is expected to and limited by what it can tell us about about race and racism, which is also evident in its absence in the museum. Quashie, therefore, argues for a reexamination of black existence that is attentive to black interiority, that is present as well alongside public acts of resistance. Quashie borrows this definition of interiority from Hortense Spillers (as he should), it is “the inner reservoir of thoughts, feelings of desires, fears, ambitions that shape a human self; it is both a space of wild selffullness, a kind of self-indulgence, and the ‘the locus at which self interrogation takes place.'” (Black, White, and in Color, p. 383 in Quashie, p. 21)

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness. However, Spillers’ point in regards to self interrogation is not only toward the institution but is also applicable to ourselves—the marginalized folk. Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process. Quashie pushes this argument further in a critique of Du Bois’ concept of “Double Consciousness”:

“In double consciousness, the twoness of black subjectivity does not represent another consciousness,  that is free and wild; instead, the twoness is a kind of pathology, a fractured consciousness that is overdetermined by a public language of black inferiority…In this characterization, agency is limited to resisting public discourse, and the black subject seems to possess no interior worth speaking of.”—Kevin Quashie

 

It is not enough that we find agency in our oppression. To decolonize the museum we must leave home. And for the institution, how then can museums offer pathways to selfhood for their visitors?

Leaving Home

Conceptualizing this post has been a slow realization for myself. I have stakes in keeping things the way they are, because this feels familiar—this feels normal. However, I’ve been challenged with confronting my own vulnerabilities, which until recent contemplation I was unaware of just how much I feel encouraged to protect the institution despite my work of inclusion. For communities of color, this work looks like us seeing each other and acknowledging the possibilities for social justice and equity in collaborative solidarity work. To do that, I’d have to accept the full range of your humanity that exists in the way that I would like for you to see me. For cultural institutions this looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

This may seem simple or even obvious, but we underestimate the veil of security that nationalism and national memory affords us. Nationalism presents a clarity of self, whereas vulnerability is considered a liability to our survival. (Quashie, p. 77) But how do the stories we tell change the narrative when we consider the potential of our relationships to ourselves and one another in acknowledging our vulnerabilities? Could you see the expansiveness of my humanity? Seeing Emmett Till’s smiling face on a banner amidst other figures in history, knowing the ways in which the horrific events surrounding his life mobilized the Civil Rights Movement, was traumatic, and falls short of the thoughtfulness it’s meant to inspire when the institution fails to provide space for our humanity alongside these stories. In that brief encounter, we are meant to understand him as one destination in our nation’s story. As I mentioned, I have not seen the new exhibition since it opened and to be honest I don’t know if I will. I don’t know if my psyche can handle being jolted between slavery and civil rights narratives. However, here’s to hoping that we also exist somewhere in between.

Leaving home requires that we forego what we think we know—a sense of security wrapped into a tidy narrative. Our trauma is too great for that.

 

 

*All views expressed here are my own, and not the opinion of anyone else or institution.

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